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Nutritionists Take Long, Hard Look at America's Passion for Fast Food : Industry on the Grill in Hot Controversy Over Health Issues

January 13, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

To Darrell Barker, a 36-year-old Thousand Oaks sales manager, fast food had always been a part of life. Every lunch and perhaps a dinner a week was a large hamburger or double cheeseburger, with the usual trimmings.

Did he know exactly what was in those items--what oil, for instance, his French fries were cooked in? "No. I never paid any attention to that stuff," he recalled.

An Ominous Warning From His Doctor

Then, 11 months ago, he went to his doctor for a checkup and learned levels of fat in his blood were dangerously high. Barker says the doctor's advice was: Cut out many of his favorite fast-food items or risk a heart attack or stroke--or worse.

"I still go to fast-food restaurants, but I get the salad bar," he said, noting that his levels of potentially harmful cholesterol--a variety of fat commonly found in meat and eggs--has returned to what his physician believes is a safe level. (Cholesterol in the normal range is essential to health, but in excess it becomes dangerous, clogging the cardiovascular system.)

Barker is just one of millions of Americans who spend about $47 billion a year on fast food. From fast food, these customers derive about 10% to 15% of their total nutrition.

By some published estimates, every second of the day, 200 people someplace in the United States order fast-food hamburgers--or 6.7 billion beef patties a year, worth $10 billion.

Growing Industry, Growing Controversy

As the fast-food industry has burgeoned, it has become the subject of intense nutritional controversy. Is fast food good for you--or is it bad? What's in it? It isn't a new controversy--Consumers Union in 1984 surveyed fast foods, reporting that if "junk food" is defined as food of no nutritional value, "fast foods aren't junk." But within the last few weeks and months, the issue has taken on several new dimensions:

- Medical and nutrition groups have begun to pressure fast-food chains to make more and better information available to their customers concerning what's in their products and why they follow certain cooking practices--such as cooking French fries in animal fat, a method virtually certain to impart cholesterol content.

- City, county and state governments have begun to mull--and in some cases pass and enforce--laws and regulations to force fast-food chains to disclose both their ingredients and basic nutritional information. San Francisco now has such an ordinance in effect. A federal law to encourage the practice is to be reintroduced in the House and Senate next year.

- Some fast-food chains are starting to realize that healthy nutrition content may be a potentially strong marketing tool. The presence or absence of salad bars and plain baked potatoes on menus have already become grist for fast-food advertising wars, and there have been media skirmishes over the comparative health and safety of different cooking methods. One chain--Arby's--has aggressively courted the official healthy nutrition imprimatur of the American Heart Assn. while another chain--McDonald's--met with the association once but didn't pursue meeting the group's restaurant health program objectives.

- A new book appeared late last year rating the nutritional shortcomings--and, to a more limited extent, strengths--of the fast-food chains as a whole and hundreds of their menu items, in particular. It is the work of Michael Jacobson, director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. One average burger, fries and a soda, Jacobson contends, may contain as much as 15 teaspoons of animal fat.

Skirt the Issue

Both government and health industry diet guidelines skirt the issue of dietary objectives for fat volume in the diet, per se, with both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and American Heart Assn. preferring to suggest percentage of total daily calorie intake that can appropriately be made up of fat.

The government suggests that total fat be not more than 35% of daily calories while the heart association's latest revision of its dietary guidelines say total fat should be not more than 30% and saturated fat--the type linked directly to harmful levels of cholesterol in the blood--should be not more than 10% of the diet. Jacobson contends that the 15 teaspoons of fat his researchers say they found in fast-food meals is excessive in terms of the government or heart association goals.

Nutritionists generally compute fat content in fast foods in terms of grams--with one gram the rough equivalent of four teaspoons of fat, according to a conversion formula used by the American Heart Assn. A gram of fat, nutritionists questioned by The Times said, is equal to about nine calories. To determine percentage of fat content in a fast-food meal, the fat calorie count is divided by the total calories.

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